Guest post by Vicki Weber, one of my classmates in the HUC Executive Masters in Education program:
Have brains changed? When I was young the standard knowledge about the brain was that it started out with all the cells it was going to get, and that the best we could do was to hope not to lose too many to profligate living along the way. I recall especially a public service ad of an egg frying: "This is your brain on drugs."
Then in the 1980's and 1990's researchers began to find evidence of brain cell regeneration--'adult neurogenesis.' According to an article in New Scientist by Moheb Costandi, neurobiologist turned freelance writer, "it is now taken for granted that adult neurogenesis occurs in humans, and the idea has revolutionized the way we think about the brain. It is widely believed that physical and mental exercise can stimulate hippocampal neurogenesis that offsets age-related cognitive decline and may protect against depression and Alzheimer's."
Well that would be neat.
And while it's not clear this has all been proven, it is hopeful to think about, as are all the even more recent studies in neuroscience in which brains can be observed at work. Neuroscience is beginning to give us better clues about how humans learn, what kinds of environments enhance learning, what kinds detract. For example there are studies that show that video games (especially the fast-paced shooting games every mother hates) not only increase time on task, but actually improve certain kinds of vision, train people to be better able to ignore distractions, help students learn new tasks faster.
Dan Levitin, neuroscientist at McGill University and author of The Organized Mind tells us about the vital role adequate sleep plays in learning by improving the procesing of our memory. "If you struggle with the language during the day, investing your focus, energy and emotions in it, then it will be ripe for replay and elaboration in your sleep."
Dina Maiben, author of Alef Bet Quest, reminds us of the role that repetition plays in learning. "Distributed practice, doing small pieces repeatedly over a few days, leads to greater success than massed practice, doing a large amount at once time.
We've mapped the genome, and now we seem to be in the process of mapping the activity of our brains in real time. Perhaps it will take us to someplace brand new--perhaps it will simply reinforce the wisdom of ancient tradition. I've been embarked on several new learning ventures lately, and there is certainly power in that. I'm not sure I've grown any new brain cells, but I can feel a few cobwebs being shaken out, perhaps a few more synapses are firing, and certainly some excitement has taken hold. Especially when I get enough sleep!
This is my brain on learning.
Vicki Weber now creates books and materials to introduce children and adults to Jewish thought, values, and practices. You can read more of her writings at http://www.behrmanhouse.com/blog/